Some people wonder why I go to Grahamstown every year for the jazz fest, others think I’m just taking a holiday there, others think playing music is foolishness. I’ve decided to blog about my experiences there.
For the last five years I have been making an annual trip to Grahamstown for the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival (SBNYJF) which forms part of the broader National Arts Festival. As I mentioned in a previous post, the SBNYJF provides a well-needed support structure for young jazz musicians; exposing them to the form and providing world class education from both national and international jazz educators.
As quoted from their website:
“The Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival has become one of the most significant jazz development programmes in the country, annually bringing together over 300 students and 40 teachers from diverse backgrounds all over South Africa, with nearly 60 professional jazz musicians and educators. The festival lasts nearly a week, incorporating innovative jazz performance, rehearsals, workshops, lectures, networking and an opportunity for South Africa’s future jazz stars to interact personally and musically with their peers and the country’s top performers.”
This culminates in a week long overdose of jazz from 9am til about 2am each day. It is without doubt, the highlight of my yearly calendar.
One can imagine the exhaustion I experienced after the week was over. What follows is a day by day account of what went down this year. There is a lot to be said, so please bear with me.
Departure and Arrival
The Stellenbosch University Jazz Band under the direction of Felicia Lesch (including the vocal ensemble Miles Beyond and the lecturers) are the largest group allowed at the festival, totaling a whopping 27 members. We departed from Stellenbosch at around midnight on Tuesday the 26th June, slept awkwardly on the bus ’til Wednesday morning, and arrived at the Storms River Steers on the Garden Route at around 8am. Here we sat down to have breakfast.
After boarding the bus again and playing round after round of ’30 seconds’, we arrived in Grahamstown at about 2pm.
The SBNYJF is held at the Diocesan Girls School (DSG), where two venues are made available for live performances: the DSG Hall and the DSG Auditorium. The latter of the two is where our registration took place. At registration we received all the festival’s necessary paraphernalia, which included a nifty sling bag, a warm top, our name tags, and the dreaded national band audition pieces!
The National Bands
Every year, the country’s top young jazz players undergo a strenuous audition process that might hopefully allow them entry into the prestigious National Schools Big Band (for those in high school) and the National Youth Jazz Band (for those between the ages of 18 and 26). The auditions require the participants to be relatively competent in the language of jazz. Only the best players are selected.
The National Youth Jazz Band (NYJB) for which I auditioned, is a small ensemble made up of a rhythm section (drums, bass, guitar, piano), a horn section (one saxophone, one trumpet, one trombone) and a vocalist.
The first round audition for the NYJB is performed for a panel of 6 judges and requires participants to play a prepared solo piece, sight read an unprepared piece of music, and play an allocated jazz standard in a live ensemble situation alongside players they’ve never played with before. If successful, the players then progress to the second round where they go head to head for a spot in the NYJB, which not only performs at the festival; but also travels to Johannesburg (to perform at the Joy of Jazz Festival) and later tours to Sweden to represent South Africa.
Generally, this audition is the most nerve wracking part of the entire festival. At registration we received four jazz standards (Nardis, the Days of Wine and Roses, Have You Met Miss Jones, and Blues for Alice) to prepare for the audition the next day. At that moment, many of us realised that it was gonna be a long night.
In addition, the NYJB is conducted by a different conductor each year. These conductors are always accomplished/award-winning jazz performers and educators, and always bring their own style and dynamic to the table. A large part of making the band is characterised by a player’s internalising of the conductor’s own style. This is achieved by listening to their music repeatedly and trying to play along to their recordings.
When I heard that the legendary pianist Paul Hanmer was taking the NYJB this year, I was struck by a deep sort of awe. I was introduced to Paul’s music by my jazz mentor Ramon Alexander, who played me one of Paul’s famous tunes called ‘Meeting of the Women’ – a funky African/Latin groove song from Paul’s groundbreaking/award winning debut album ‘Trains to Taung’ (1997).
Never did I think I’d ever end up auditioning for the NYJB with Paul behind the wheel, and never did I think he’d actually like what I did in that audition. While on the bus en route to Grahamstown, I alternated between listening to ‘Trains to Taung’ and the fusion group Yellowjackets (whom Ramon assured me Paul was influenced by extensively).
It was indeed, gonna be a long night.
Keep following for my post on Day 2.